Food poverty is a huge problem in Ireland and throughout the EU. The Great British Budget Menu on BBC One recently featured three famous chefs coming face to face with it.
Each chef had to live with a family for a week and recommend simple ways to shop for and cook nutritious meals on a very tight budget.
One family of two parents and three children had the equivalent of €2 per day to spend on food, a single mother drank only sugared tea for breakfast and lunch to ensure her daughter had enough to eat, and a pensioner lived on half a cup of packet soup with a slice of white bread for dinner.
The families had almost empty cupboards and fridges. Few meals were produced from natural ingredients. Instead ready-to-cook meals such as family lasagne packs or ready-to-heat food such as beans and hot dogs were eaten because they are cheaper than cooking real food from scratch. It’s not just in the UK, it’s in 21st-century Ireland too.
Food poverty is a problem for at least one in 10 Irish people. In fact, they are worse off than their UK counterparts. The "Budget Menu Store Cupboard" given on the BBC website lists 22 basic food items, costs, on average, €20 in the UK and €36 in Ireland.
Paradoxically, those experiencing food poverty are more likely to be overweight or obese because they are eating cheap, energy-dense, nutrient-poor food.
We now have a public health problem of epidemic proportions where nearly two-thirds of the population are under-, mal- or over-fed all at once. Safefood has produced a food poverty indicator which measures three key food deprivation factors: can’t afford a meal with meat or vegetarian equivalent every second day; missed a meal in the last two weeks due to lack of money; or cannot afford a weekly roast dinner or vegetarian equivalent.
Even though food poverty affects a minority of Irish families it has implications for the whole of society. A report from the Institute of Public Health, "Food Security on the Island of Ireland: are we sleepwalking into a crisis?", concludes that high food prices are "likely to cause food riots, geopolitical tension, and global inflation . . . and low-income families in wealthier countries will also be affected".
Food poverty is likely to get worse over the next few years. The latest survey on income and living conditions (February 2013) from the Central Statistics Office shows that the "at risk" of poverty rate increased from 14.7 per cent in 2010 to 16 per cent in 2011. This rate is more than a third in households where no one has a job. Almost a quarter of the population experienced two or more types of enforced deprivation in 2011, up from 11.8 per cent in 2007. One in five people missed meals due to lack of money and more than a third of those at risk of poverty missed meals because they could not afford to eat.
Food programmes on television, while entertaining, especially for better-off people, do nothing to help anyone experiencing food poverty.
Producers wrongly believe that families and individuals suffer from food poverty because they can’t cook, don’t know anything about nutrition and are useless at budgeting.
All will be well if they are given a chef to show them the error of their ways. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people who spend little on food because of other financial commitments, wish they could eat more healthily, they just can’t afford to.
There is convincing evidence that food poverty is inextricably linked to education, transport, food cultures, health literacy and the built environment.
Too many people believe food advertising. The solution is a multi-sector approach across all Government departments.
Healthy Ireland: A Framework for Improved Health and Wellbeing recently launched by the Department of Health and Children has no reference to food poverty.
While it is mentioned in the social inclusion section, giving a target to reduce consistent poverty to 4 per cent by 2016 from a baseline of 6.2 in 2010, the baseline has already increased to 6.9. Drastic action is needed or the country really is sleepwalking into a crisis.
Hungry, unhealthy people will be harder to deal with than the bankers and will cost more in the long run.